Poly Styrene introduced the world to revolutionary ideas about consumerism, race and gender and helped build the definitive sound of rebellion.
Poly Styrene: I Am Cliché
Where: In theatres and VOD
What: Movie, 135 mins.
Why you should watch: As the first woman of colour in the U.K. to front a successful rock band, punk icon Poly Styrene introduced the world to revolutionary ideas about consumerism, race and gender and helped build the definitive sound of rebellion. In this groundbreaking doc, her daughter, Celeste Bell, digs deep across space and time to learn about her late mother’s life and posthumously reckon with their fraught relationship.
When I was a teenager, woman-led punk rock was everything to me. I was loud, frustrated, angry and often felt as though the world wasn’t built to have me in it; when I discovered the punk girls of the ’80s and ’90s, I felt understood.
My phone’s lock screen was a picture of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon wearing a shirt that said “GIRLS INVENTED PUNK ROCK, NOT ENGLAND.” I was obsessed with the Slits, Nina Hagen, Bikini Kill, the Raincoats — these were the woman who first defined what it meant to be a rebellious modern woman at all, and I loved them for it. In my mind, though, no one did it better than Poly Styrene.
Poly Styrene was the lead singer of the seminal punk band X-Ray Spex, the first successful rock band to be led by a woman of colour in the U.K. and one of the first anywhere in the western world. She was funny, witty, magnetic, erratic and an outsider even amongst the outsiders.
In the late ’70s, when punk was just starting to become its own kind of uniform, she dared to break the mould that had been built by everyone who broke the mould before her. While punks of the time dressed in leather jackets, distressed pants and shades of red and black, she wore cartoonish ’60s pastels and DIY costumes like a children’s book character.
She wrote songs about consumerism, commodity fetishism, identity and consumption with a unique sophistication and clarity of purpose, and the people loved her for it. But, at the peak of her career, X-Ray Spex disbanded, for reasons largely unknown, and faded into relative obscurity.
Now, years after her death, her daughter, Celeste Bell, has spearheaded a groundbreaking documentary that sheds light on one of the most complex and multifaceted figures of the ’80s. Poly Styrene: I Am Cliche is far more intimate and emotionally charged than your typical music-history fare: Bell and her mother had a complicated and often fraught relationship, in part due to the stresses of Poly Styrene’s fame, and as Bell travels around the world to learn the truth about her late mother, we feel every emotion with her.
The doc is about more than just Poly Styrene, though: Through private photographs, diary entries and long-buried footage, it paints the punk underbellies of London and New York in vivid, unflinching detail. Rare footage from Styrene’s shows at CBGB, The Man in the Moon and more provide incredible context and remarkable insight into a singular, unimaginable period in time. It’s almost surreal to see images of Styrene casually sitting in a bedroom with the Sex Pistols or sharing a mic with Thurston Moore — even more so when you start to wonder why X-Ray Spex has been all but erased from the popular punk history books while their contemporaries became household names.
Racism and mental health stigma dogged Poly Styrene throughout her career and, arguably, worked in tandem to end it — the doc goes into detail about her battle with severe mental illness both privately and publicly, and her race put her even further on the outskirts of an already-fringe community. Now, finally, she’s being painted with complexity, honesty and compassion.
She may have rocked in the ’80s, but Poly Styrene was ahead of her time. She’s a 2020s girl through and through, and this doc couldn’t be more relevant — with conversations about race, class, feminism and mental illness balanced with deeply personal emotional intensity and soundtracked by incredible music, it will surely become a manifesto for a whole new generation of misfits.